Race: The Future of Whiteness in America - Ellis Cose

Would America be so different if blacks, Latinos, and people of Asian descent collectively became the new majority? It's not an idle question. According to the most recent U.S. Census projections, that's precisely where the United States is likely headed—by 2050 or thereabouts. It's important to distinguish this from concerns around the decennial Census scheduled for this year. Communities of color have a history of being undercounted, so advocates are mobilizing to make sure the new count is as accurate as possible. Those numbers, after all, confer power—via allocation of federal dollars and reapportionment of political representation. The Census projections have no power at all. And, truth be told, the future they imagine is unlikely to ever come to pass. For while the projections say much about our current racial assumptions, they are a poor measure for what lies ahead.

In America's early days, it was virtually impossible to conceive of a citizen as being other than white. The first U.S. naturalization act made whiteness a condition of gaining citizenship. So courts heard case after case from would-be white people who appeared to be something else. In 1922, a Japanese national who had lived in the United States for 20 years told the Supreme Court that most Japanese hailed from Caucasian "root stocks." The high court disagreed. Next year, a high-caste Hindu claimed he too was white. The justices found him no more persuasive.

This was during a time when even Europeans were divided into lesser and better grades of white. Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Jews were, in many quarters, deemed to be of altogether different (and inferior) stock. Such ideas, though preposterous, defined debate and shaped immigration laws.

In an essay titled "How Did Jews Become White Folks?" anthropologist Karen Brodkin Sacks asks: "Did Jews and other Euroethnics become white because they became middle class? É Or did being incorporated in an expanded version of whiteness open up the economic doors to middle-class status?" Both tendencies, she concluded, were at work. But her larger point is that nothing about race is static.

That's even more obvious today. A few generations back, racially mixed couples were an anomaly. But between the 1990 and 2000 census, the percentage of racially intermarried couples nearly doubled. More significantly, when Gallup's pollsters surveyed Americans' attitudes toward interracial relationships in 2005, the majority were accepting. Ninety-five percent of Americans under 30 approved, compared to roughly 45 percent of those over 64. Indeed, the majority of younger people claimed to have dated a person of a different race or ethnic background.

Census Bureau demographers are highly skilled. But there is no way they can program projections to capture the complexity of Americans' shifting attitudes. To their credit, they have tried. The 2000 Census, for instance, allowed Americans a wider range of options than did the 1990 Census. Racial categories were increased from five to six. For the first time Americans were allowed to claim more than one racial identity, and American Indians and Alaska natives were allowed to name their tribes. But there was no attempt to measure Americans' increasing propensity to propagate with partners of other races. As Census demographer Fred Hollmann told me, "We did not feel we had enough information from history to make an assumption on that particular issue."

By the same token, there is not enough information to say how quickly other groups will go the route of the Italians and Jews and become more white than not. What is certain is that young people—whether choosing mates, categorizing people, or simply hanging out—are less likely than their elders to erect rigid racial walls. We also know that it's only a matter of time before DNA testing persuades many "whites" that they are much more mixed than they ever imagined.

So what does that mean for the future America? At the very least, it means two things: that whites are not in danger of becoming a minority in the foreseeable future because the white category (or its equivalent) will likely expand to encompass many we now consider to be minorities. But more important, race is not going to be quite as big a deal as it is now; in the America of tomorrow—whatever people decide to call themselves—race will not be synonymous with destiny. That's a future worth embracing.